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Each time I come to Kabul, I learn something new about Afghanistan’s fascination with birds.
In December 2001, days after the puritanical Taliban had fled the capital, I watched dozens of men cheerfully placing bets on a cockfight in a courtyard behind the bazaar. Between bouts, one of the owners solicitously licked the bleeding face and neck of his bird and poured orange juice down its throat.
I looked at hunting falcons and caged songbirds and was surprised to learn that Afghans were dedicated pigeon-fanciers.
More than a decade later, Kabul’s bird market continues to thrive, and you still see Kabulis on their rooftops admiring their pigeons whirling through the sky. The market is crowded with buyers and sellers of fighting quails, goldfinches, Indian parakeets and elegant pigeons costing up to $1,000 a bird.
I was calculating that top pigeon prices had risen fourfold when a crazed-looking man approached holding a bloodied knife. Fortunately he walked past me, grabbed four (cheaper) specimens, slit their throats one by one, let the blood drip into a cardboard box and handed them to the buyer; one of his relatives had suffered a stroke, and everyone knew the best medicine was pigeon soup.
When I told this story to some Afghans, saying I would have tried aspirin or gone to a doctor instead, one of them pointed to a boy who seemed to have epilepsy lying on the pavement and said a common cure was to put a shoe on the face of the person having a fit. “Does it work?” I asked. “Sometimes,” was the reply.
Kabul has in other ways become a modern city in the past 12 years, complete with schools for girls and 3G telephone networks.
There are hotels and restaurants with names such as Le Jardin, and Kabul is clogged with vehicles. “In Afghanistan there are no rules for traffic,” says Shoaib, the driver, with satisfaction. “Just like a sword fight.” Boys push ice-cream carts around the city, relentlessly replaying the same tinny electronic tune: “Happy Birthday to You”.
Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister now trying to organise the “transition” of military operations to Afghan control as 100,000 Nato troops head for the exit, reminds me that Kabul’s population has swollen more than tenfold to about 5m since he returned in December 2001 after more than two decades working abroad. “Socially it really is a miracle that this city is holding together,” he says.
Yet the city is far from normal, and by no means as safe and relaxed as on Mr Ghani’s return. Hotels and shops are ominously quiet, and I notice that one of the guards at the Serena Hotel has no less than four spare magazines for his Kalashnikov stuffed into his belt. Intrusive security checkpoints are everywhere.
As the snows melt in the Hindu Kush and the “fighting season” begins, residents and military commanders fear that a spectacular attack by the Taliban or other Islamist militant groups will shatter what confidence remains.
Here on the Jalalabad road, says a security adviser with his finger on a map of the city, is where a battle was fought a few weeks back when Taliban fighters were stopped with a truck holding eight tonnes of explosives. Here – he points to another district – is where a French aid worker was kidnapped for money. Here – he points again – is where 20 people died last year in a suicide attack on the Lake Qargha resort. And so it goes on.
Afghanistan’s dangers are brought home to me as I prepare to leave Kabul and wonder why no one from the US embassy ever got back to me about my request for a meeting. Looking through the emails, I notice with shock that the initial friendly response came from an information officer called Anne Smedinghoff on April 4. She was killed two days later at the age of 25 in a car bombing in south-eastern Afghanistan while on a mission to deliver books to a school.
Perhaps it is understandable that some foreigners are forbidden to leave their fortified compounds in Kabul without military escorts, but it strengthens the impression of a city under siege.
They are not even allowed to wander through the bird market, where they would find a reassuring sense of post-2001 normality from 32-year-old Abdul Habib, a busy pigeon merchant for aficionados of the pastime. “It’s a habit people will keep even if there’s war,” he tells me. “It was banned in the times of the Taliban. Nobody wants those times to come back.”